Dear Elderly Aunt: My father died three years ago. I realized recently that I didn’t even acknowledge his birthday this year. I’m his last living descendent, so there’s no one for me to reminisce with. And I don’t live near his grave. But I feel my connection to him slipping away. Do you have any suggestions for how to honor the memory of someone who is gone on their birthday?
Decades ago, the Elderly Aunt became acquainted with the editor of a small-town West Virginia newspaper. Back in 1985, the Potomac River headwaters went on a rampage and flooded his office. A year later, he was still trying to put things back into some kind working order. Ever the optimist, however, my editor friend said cheerfully, “At least now I have a built-in explanation for when I can’t find something—it must have gotten lost in the flood.”
The Elderly Aunt affectionately suggests that you, dear reader, use the massive disruption of last year’s pandemic in similar fashion. Even she, as wise as she is, sometimes has great trouble keeping up with what month it is. So why not cut yourself some slack about forgetting your father’s birthday ’midst the Great Covid Muddle? The Elderly Aunt is pretty durn certain that he, as your loving father, would not want you to fret five seconds about something so understandable.
Moving on to address the question of what constitutes an inspired posthumous celebration of a loved one’s birthday…
In the Elderly Aunt’s opinion, the first thing to consider is: How much fuss did your father want made over his birthday when he was alive? It’s one thing if he delighted in an annual hoopla humdinger of a birthday bash—another thing entirely if he low-keyed the day’s importance. If the former, then the Elderly Aunt’s first thought is that you hold an annual bash of your own in tribute to your father’s birth. Not necessarily on the day, itself, but on some seasonally close day on which it would be possible for your friends—and his—to gather. It doesn’t have to be fancy or large, just whatever constitutes the kind of celebratory fellowship that your father would have appreciated.
If, however, your father (like the Elderly Aunt’s) didn’t want much fuss made over his birthday when he was alive, then her question for you, dear reader, is why does observing it suddenly matter to you so much now that he’s dead?
It strikes her that grief for a loved one is a complicated, highly-individualistic, uncontrollably emotional process during which almost anything can trigger the deep pain of loss. So might not your fixation on forgetting your father’s birthday during the confusions of this last pandemical year be part of your own grieving process for him? A measure of both how much his presence meant to you and of the enormous hole his absence makes in the shape and fabric of your life?
If that is the case, please allow the Elderly Aunt to offer these thoughts based on her own parental grief experience. As both her imperfect father and mother have been dead for more than two decades, she’s had plenty of time to go through the sharpness of their loss and come out the other side into feeling that both her father and mother remain actively present in her heart—not as beatified parental saints but rather as real people. Little reminders of Pop and Mom that at first triggered pain have been replaced by little reminders that trigger the Elderly Aunt’s appreciation for the gifts they gave her that contribute mightily to the fullness of her own life.
Her mother was an amateur ornithologist of some gusto. When she was an adolescent, the Elderly Aunt’s mother would embarrass the living daylights out of her teenaged daughter by going on in front of her teenaged friends about such nonsense as the “wild clear call” of the Wood Pewee or inconvenience her mightily by insisting the Elderly Aunt join her in wandering around the woods for what seemed like days looking for the no-count nest of an elusive ovenbird.
Flash forward half-a-century, and the Elderly Aunt is quick to credit her own love of—and curiosity about—birds directly to her mother’s influence. During this last home-centric year, the Elderly Aunt has gotten tremendous entertainment from watching any bird that drops by. She is constantly high-fiving Mom across the Great Divide to express her daughterly appreciation the absolute joy she gets from watching them hop and peck and splash around the various bird-feeding-and-bathing stations her creative human partner has created in their yard. And surely an enduring, spontaneous inclusion of her mother in the Elderly Aunt’s daily life is the greatest tribute any child could give a parent.
There are, of course, many other examples the Elderly Aunt could give of the ways her parents continue to be joyfully present in her heart, but I suspect you already grasp the concept, dear reader.
The Elderly Aunt’s experience is that grief is what it is. Going through it takes as long as it takes. Grief hurts. It surfaces at jagged moments, triggered in unexpected—and not necessarily logical—ways. But familial love endures throughout the process. And in the end, it’s this love that snuggles deep down in our hearts as an indestructible comfort and a joy.
The Elderly Aunt offers her thoughtful responses to your questions about this wild ride we call life on every other Monday. And as a general disclaimer—to quote the elves from The Lord of the Rings — “… advice is a dangerous gift, even given from the wise to the wise.”
Got a question for the Elderly Aunt? Ask her on Facebook or email your question to [email protected] with the subject line “Elderly Aunt question.” (Just please don’t ask detailed financial questions).